Can We Justify the Hype?
Regardless of what happens on the first Saturday in May, it seems kind of silly to anoint a horse with just two starts, no Kentucky Derby points, and no stakes experience as the winner of the next Run for the Roses. As of today, we do not even know if Justify, a fast and talented, albeit inexperienced and untested colt, by Scat Daddy and trained by the master himself, Bob Baffert, will be in the starting gate. Based on the ease in which he won an allowance race this past Sunday, in a quick time over a fast strip which was wet, he looks visually as talented as any three-year old we have seen in 2018. That, along with all the positives already pointed out, does not make him the Derby winner.
Racing hungers for that next champion, that next special horse that out performs expectations and captures the hearts of the die hard and peripheral fans as well. We can almost taste it when we see an exciting maiden breaker, and we amplify that tenfold when it is from a powerhouse stable. In reality, we have been very fortunate in the past several years. We have seen some truly great champions. We’ve even had our long-awaited Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah, who silenced all who said we needed to change the series or we wouldn’t see another one. Perhaps they hadn’t studied the history of this great game. The Triple Crown is not supposed to be easy or frequent. It takes a special horse and a lot of things to go right. Along with American Pharoah, who put an exclamation point on his Triple Crown with a score in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses, we had plenty of other stars. Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Beholder, Arrogate, Gun Runner, Lady Eli, Shared Belief and Curlin immediately come to mind. These are horses who would have been top shelf in any era, yet we still long for that next one.
While there is nothing wrong with that type of enthusiasm, and if it fuels excitement for the game I guess it is a good thing. However, as a student and historian of the sport I realize how silly it really is at this juncture. This excitement and hunger doesn’t stop with the fan and bettor. It extends to the people spending, even over spending, at the sales. It reaches the people who have scouts watching for smashing performances and high buyer numbers or low sheet numbers, so they can over spend on a racing prospect. Everybody wants that next champion. Freak is the word often thrown around. How and why that word was chosen to represent fast racehorses escapes me, but if nothing else it is over used.
Looking back, I saw plenty of horses run great in their first two starts. Pulpit, a 107 Beyer on debut at Gulfstream and a 108 when stretched out the next time. He won by over 7 lengths first out and over 6 in his second start. With a little luck he could have broken the Apollo curse which is something Justify will have to overcome. While I do think that the whole Apollo thing is ripe for the picking and will be foiled at some point, it does go back to the 1800’s. Rock Hard Ten ran two smashers to begin his career, Curlin was super impressive in his debut so much so he was purchased privately with the Kentucky Derby in mind. Considering he broke his maiden in February as a three-year old it was an ambitious buy. Although Curlin didn’t win the Derby, he ran third but with more seasoning he might have did it, which also would have knocked down that whole Apollo thing.
Khozan ran two monsters to start his career and so did Bayern. Tale of The Cat ran a killer debut, winning by a pole. A lot of really nice horses, but no Kentucky Derby winners. Bodemeister was another who looked like he could be anything and if not for I’ll Have Another and a very fast pace we might not even have to mention that whole Apollo thing anymore. That freak word was thrown all around these horses. I take nothing away from any of them, they all had talent. But after just a race or two, you just don’t know who a freak is. Nobody does.
When you look at all this, one thing jumps out. Don’t believe the hype, especially when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. Let them sort themselves out on the track. They will. And I, for one, enjoy watching it unfold and having an unbiased edge come the first Saturday in May. Sure, Justify has a lot going for him. I think he is really good and could be special. I think Apollo should be watching. I think if anyone can pull this off, it is Bob Baffert. This is a game of odds however, and I think we must remain cognizant that the odds are against it.